Issue Number: 113
A fascinating new book explores how artists over the centuries have changed their tactics in depicting the fortunes of war, writes Edmund Fawcett
In terms of sheer quantity, it is safe to say that far more art celebrates war and honours its participants than laments war’s folly and destructiveness. Until about 200 years ago most art that dealt with war either pictured victories and heroes or showed us soldiering as an ordinary part of life. You can still see such martial art, made nowadays, if you go to regimental mess halls, military colleges or graveyards. But you are unlikely to see it in art galleries or museums that show the best art of our time. Today’s art world tends to treat Mars, if at all, less as god or hero than as reckless addict in need of treatment.
If that is right, we are dealing with a big shift in moral and artistic sensibility. Emeritus professor of history Theodore Rabb makes a strong case for the claim in this fascinating survey of war in art from ancient times to the present day. In our age of mechanised and depersonalised modern warfare, Rabb suggests, the best artists, if treating military subjects at all, have tended to work somewhere in the mental space between mourning and pacifism.
A detail from one of three Japanese scrolls depicting the Heiji Uprising in The Illustrated Tale of the Heiji Era, late thirteenth century. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston/Photo © 2011 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
Rabb does not ride that idea too hard, but uses it rather as the hinge of a full historical survey. It opens with a bas-relief of Assyrians at war and runs through many times and lands to the changed atmosphere of the twentieth century, with Dix’s crippled veterans and Picasso’s passionate response to the bombing of Guernica in the Spanish Civil War.
The book earns its subtitle, ‘Military history through the eyes of the masters’. Each phase in the story opens with a capsule description of the changing character of warfare, the type of weaponry used and the nature of battles. Rabb’s examples are illustrated and his eye is acute. In the long period before modern warfare, he picks images with a force of colour, strength of composition and energy of line that vividly depict warrior virtues of hand-to-hand combat. Unless your modern conscience intervenes, it’s hard not to find such images stirring and beautiful.
Rabb’s cultural range is impressively wide. Astonishing battle scenes are illustrated in scrolls from Japan or manuscripts from Turkey and India. Imperial Rome’s warrior-engineers throng the carved reliefs on Trajan’s Column (c.100CE). The Bayeux Tapestry of the Norman landing in Britain in 1066 exemplifies medieval dynastic warfare. Pageantry and knightly display in Renaissance warfare are seen in Uccello’s Battle of San Romano (c.1438-40) and Donatello’s and Verrocchio’s statues of mercenaries on horses.
Gunpowder, gunfire and predations on hapless civilians mark a first sign of change. The ‘hero-less battle’ begins to appear. Pieter Bruegel the Elder presents soldiers as a scourge. Jacques Callot’s engravings, Miseries of War (c.1633) made in response to the Thirty Years War (1618-48) show us the havoc that badly led soldiers may wreak when disobeying their superiors. These, though, are still in a sense minority views. For the big guns of sixteenth and seventeenth-century art – Titian and Velázquez, for example – war remains, on the whole, a field for honour and glory in the service of princes (who were their patrons).
The big change comes at the end of the eighteenth century, and Napoleon gets most of the blame. Rabb contrasts Jacques-Louis David’s heroising paintings of France’s military emperor with Goya’s violent scenes of street warfare and a French firing squad from Madrid, The Second of May, 1808 and The Third of May, 1808. For Rabb, David represents the end of a line, whereas Goya opens a new phase in Western art. It is now the ‘futility and chaos of battle’ that prompts ‘the highest creative impulse’. The leading theme for artists who deal with soldiers and battle becomes ‘the pity of war’. In this last period, Rabb includes Matthew Brady’s photographs from the American Civil War (1861-65) and the anti-war films of Stanley Kubrick from the 1960s. He concludes with a suggestion that film-makers took over many tasks that painters had performed in representing soldiers and warfare. That may be true, but for every humane meditation on the calamities of war, such as Grand Illusion (1937) by Jean Renoir, the painter’s son, there are hundreds of mindless war films demonising enemies and desensitising us to violence.
This topical, thought-provoking book raises questions about what it means for an artist to be for or against war. Artists may dwell on the pity of war without in any strong or absolute sense being ‘anti-war’. They can, in addition, depict its horrors while still taking sides. Goya’s two scenes are a good example. They were painted six years after the event, in 1814. By then failure loomed for Napoleon’s attempt to break the old regimes of Europe. With British help, the decrepit Spanish Bourbons were back and Goya knew which side to please. In the more famous of the pair, the Third of May 1808, French soldiers shoot civilians. The victims, presumably, are part of a monarchist rabble, shown the previous day slashing wildly with long knives at French cavalrymen trying to keep order in a chaotic city. We can all agree that violence is abhorrent, but the violence that gets the worst press, from artists as from anyone, is usually violence by the opposing side.